The notion of hometown pride may seem a quaint, old-fashioned sentiment in our modern – and increasingly cynical – era. But it’s real, and it can be powerful. For proof, look to Wetumpka, sitting on the soft bluffs rising above the Coosa River about 25 miles north of Montgomery.
The strength of the hometown pride bursting at this small city’s borders will soon be playing out on national television, as popular renovation experts Ben and Erin Napier shine a spotlight on Wetumpka, chronicling a makeover focused on its downtown and historic district in “Home Town Takeover,” a spinoff of their hit HGTV show “Home Town,” scheduled to air late spring or early summer 2021.
The six-episode series is a huge undertaking for the couple and HGTV, but an even bigger win for the small city (population 8,300), which stood out from a very crowded field. In early 2019, the Napiers put out a call on social media, asking cities with fewer than 40,000 residents to tell them why they should be the spot transformed in “Takeover’s” first season. In response, more than 500,000 submission videos representing 2,600 other small towns across the United States were sent in.
Shellie Whitfield, executive director of the Wetumpka Area Chamber of Commerce, and Jenny Stubbs, executive director of Main Street Wetumpka (a nonprofit focused on revitalizing the city’s historic business district), both had the same thought when they heard that “Home Town” was going on the road. “We knew we needed to apply, so we did,” the two say, almost in unison. They then recruited Wetumpka Mayor Jerry Willis, Lynn Weldon, the city’s economic development director, and City Clerk Tiffany Robinson for the “team Wetumpka” roster, and the group created a 2-minute video to make the city’s case.
On July 2, 2020, it was announced that Wetumpka had been selected, and work on and filming of the multiple renovation and restoration projects (six residential, six commercial, plus several public spaces) began in early September. The news was thrilling, but for many, it was also a long-overdue validation.
“I grew up here, but I lived a lot of places before coming back, and I’ve always felt my city was a hidden gem. Now, others agree we’re worth the effort,” Stubbs says, adding she’s not alone in these feelings. “The people here are loyal to their home and so proud of it. The entire community has been supportive of the progress downtown, but we needed some direction and some help to keep going.”
The most recent efforts to reinvigorate downtown, spearheaded by Main Street Wetumpka in coordination with the city and the chamber, began in 2017 after decades of reaching for the sky but never getting off the ground. “There have been several previous downtown revitalization plans that just stuttered and stopped,” Whitfield says. To get past those stalls, Stubbs felt they needed to make something tangible happen and happen quickly.
While the first project of the new plan sure didn’t sound speedy, it showed residents that things were finally moving forward. “We started with the Tulotoma Snail Trail,” Stubbs says. Named for a river snail (tulotoma magnifica) indigenous to the Coosa River flowing alongside downtown, the project uses murals and sculptures to communicate aspects of the community’s history. Whitfield, who had just moved to Wetumpka from Denver, was commissioned to paint one of the murals. “I wasn’t yet in my chamber position,” she says, “but I’d been so embraced here, and I wanted to be involved. I am a former art teacher, so pitching in to paint was natural.”
Whitfield remembers the moment she knew the trail plan was having the desired effect. She was perched on scaffolding, working on the exterior wall of an old hotel where people driving across the Bibb Graves Bridge straddling the Coosa could easily see her. “Every car was honking. It sounded celebratory, and I felt it right then,” Whitfield says. “The pent-up excitement; people were so ready for this, but they needed to see something, even if it was just paint on a wall.”
The public art lit the fuse, but in early 2019, a tornado threatened to snuff it out; the storm damaged multiple structures and businesses, destroying a handful and partially reversing the progress. Despite this tough, but temporary, setback, the residents rallied and the spark remained. Today, the positive buzz surrounding the city’s future is reaching the explosive stage of liftoff. “Watching what Erin and Ben have done in Laurel (the Mississippi town where “Home Town” is set) makes this so exciting,” Willis says. “It’s really a tremendous honor when you realize how many other cities wanted this, too.”
The excitement is most evident in the faces and voices of Wetumpka’s residents, folks like Joan McDonald, who’s ebullient recalling her reaction. “When I heard, I thought it was truly the most incredible news ever, absolutely amazing,” she says. “I’ve watched the city just get better and better over the last few years, and this jolt of energy and resources will take us even further.” And others like Janice Whorton, who works at the chamber and tears up when she talks about the transformation she’s watching outside her office window. “I was born and raised here and retired as the city clerk before I came to the chamber,” she says. “I have loved seeing downtown come back to life, to what it was when I was younger. We had it going good ourselves, but ‘Home Town’ helping us is just the icing on the cake. And it’s so fun!”
Fun is the right word to describe Stubbs and Whitfield when they’re sharing this chapter of Wetumpka’s story. Stubbs, the determined and knowledgeable native, and Whitfield the spunky, sunny newcomer, give off a palpable enthusiasm any time the topic comes up. Other members of the team are equally passionate about the possibilities.
“The ultimate goal of municipal governing is to increase the quality of life in your city, and this is a way to do just that; it puts us on the map and will bring us so many opportunities,” Willis says. “And the camaraderie between all of us and the entire community has been amazing.”
Robinson agrees. “We’ve suffered through some division before, so it’s so great how we’re all so unified, working toward the same goal,” she says. Whitfield echoes them both. “We have such a great, like-minded group,” she says. “Everyone is acting in the interest of Wetumpka, not ego. No one cares about getting credit for this or that.”
This committed collaboration among elected officials, business owners and everyday people has been key and is why the city’s new motto focusing on the first two letters of Wetumpka’s name, rings true.
“Our motto is, ‘We can together!’ with the emphasis on ‘we.’ It’s something we’ve been really intentional about because it hasn’t always been that way here,” Stubbs says.
This new mindset among city leadership is reflective of a spirit residents have long radiated to visitors and newcomers. “I think Wetumpka stands out, even among the hospitality of the South, for its inclusivity,” Whitfield says. “I should know, just showing up here from across the country and being so welcomed.”
Stubbs picked up on Whitfield’s thought. “The way our community is so connected, our willingness to work together, and what we’d already shown we could accomplish together, I think that’s what Ben and Erin saw,” she says. “We told them in the submission video that we’d gotten started ourselves but that we now needed the boost from their help.”
A boost is exactly what Wetumpka is getting. But when the designing, sawing, hammering, painting, filming and editing is all done, and the show airs in 2021, “boom” may be a more accurate characterization of the impact, one that could likely rival the mark made by the massive meteor that struck the earth in Wetumpka eons ago and left a still-visible crater. Stubbs says the city has always had a unique energy, and it’s just another reason why her hometown was – and deserves to have been – picked by the Napiers.
“It’s just special here,” she says, “and I’ve always said it’s the stardust still in the air.”
(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)